With the 10th season of Thunder Basketball in the books, our panel reveals the early obstacles, excitement and pride in building a brand from scratch to make Oklahoma proud.


Where were you on July 2, 2008, when Clay Bennett said the words, “We made it!”

Brian Byrnes: I was in Oklahoma City, standing in the back of the banquet room in the Skirvin Hotel as Clay addressed civic leaders and gathered media.  I spent the entire day working with SMG coordinating a contingency plan in the event the announcement was made to launch business operations that night.  Up to, and including that day, no one knew for sure where the team would play in 2008 and business operations continued uninterrupted in Seattle.  I recruited SMG guest relations staff to work that night – and through the July Fourth weekend – answering a hotline to document interest in securing season tickets. Earlier in the day, I provided a brief orientation to the project and developed our “phone script” and said we were either on the cusp of history or it was a brief seminar in customer service and they could resume their holiday planning.  When Clay announced the team was headed for OKC, everyone was excited to be involved in the project and contribute to a piece of Oklahoma history.  To this day, many of the SMG staff who worked through the night on July 2 and the holiday weekend are involved in the game night experience at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Dan Mahoney: I was standing to the side of the podium at the press conference at the Skirvin. I was moderating the media Q&A portion. I remember thinking that things were moving so fast, but it was an incredible night for Oklahoma City. I remember looking out at the crowd. Besides numerous media members I knew, there were also business, civic and community leaders who were there, wanting to be part of a historic night. 

Lisa Waite: On Vashon Island with my husband, Gabe. I had received a call that day from our marketing director, Ben Wilson, telling me that the sale was likely happening. I was working from home at that time.

Abby Morgan: I was actually in Stillwater for the holiday weekend, visiting my family. At the time, I was working in Dallas for the Mavericks but I was closely watching the situation with the team. I knew that once they made the decision to come to OKC, I wanted to be one of the first to throw my hat in the ring. I loved the idea of being able to continue working for an NBA team, but be able to come home and do it for my home state. I immediately starting making my plan on how I was going to get in front of the right person to see what I could do.

Katrina Wiley: I was at work in the office in the Sonics offices in the Washington Mutual Tower in downtown Seattle. We were still going about the business of Sonics (and the WNBA Storm). Danny Barth, Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, called the staff together in the lobby of the office and announced there had been a settlement and the team would be leaving Seattle.

Emotions aside, professionally, what was your first thought? What were the immediate challenges and tasks that had to be identified and/or tackled, knowing the season tips off in 119 days?

BB: What an incredible opportunity – to have a blank canvas to build an organization and business strategy from the ground up was very appealing.  The transition from uncertainty in Seattle to a clear path forward in OKC was empowering and provided clarity for the task ahead.  We immediately set out to build our database with interested fans, coordinate with the arena for scheduling and operational coordination, audit best practices from the Hornets experience, design revenue models for ticketing and sponsorship, and outline the asset mix required to produce the game experience.  The core values of respect, professionalism, strong character, meaningful community engagement and excellence in customer service were defined by ownership and instilled in the organization from the first day.  The clarity in those expectations – notwithstanding how daunting it was to live up to – gave us focus and vision throughout those first 119 days.

DM: I remember us being very determined to move quickly but smartly as we began to organize our thoughts and actions. We had very good communication with those still in Seattle and those of us on the ground in OKC. We were able to move quickly to begin taking phone calls that night to get names on lists for tickets. I also remember getting almost non-stop calls and emails from people inquiring about jobs. Some I knew, some I did not. I genuinely tried to respond to everything. In those early hours and days, we felt it was important to lay the groundwork for what the NBA team in OKC would stand for: high quality,  responsive and first-class guest care and utmost professionalism at all times. We could have used the "we're so busy" excuse to cut corners when it came to process.  We didn't.

LW: Personally, I thought I had to come to OKC, to see what it was like before I’d commit to the move. Professionally, I felt it would be a good move to see what it was like to live out-of-state for the first time and branch out to another NBA city. I was excited to help be a part of starting a brand new team from the ground up.

John Leach: Not necessarily having any personal ties to Seattle, I was up for the challenge. I knew the city loved the NBA and had a great reputation for how they supported the Hornets when they were relocated after Hurricane Katrina, so as the show producer/director, I was looking forward to it.

AM: I was so excited. I felt like it was a real opportunity to grow my career but to also come home. I knew that I had a lot of good experience with starting a team from scratch since I had done it here in OKC with the Hornets and also helped move the team back to New Orleans.

Katy Semtner: In human resources, our first thoughts were to set up offices and hire employees. So many people contributed to getting our offices up and running, from furniture to IT infrastructure to hiring employees. We received hundreds of resumes, literally boxes full, from people interested in joining the NBA in OKC. We hired 61 full-time employees in three months, just in time for the season to tip off! I think it's so cool that 45 full-time employees that we hired that first year, or that relocated with the team, are still with the organization. We're fortunate to have the ownership group and leadership team we do that sets the foundation for a special organization to work for.

What do you remember about your first day on the job in Oklahoma City?

BB: My first day was a blur – July 2 and 3 – as the hotline for season ticket requests was blowing up! I worked out of a conference room in the Skirvin Hotel for a few weeks alongside colleagues from a variety of business disciplines and the energy was palpable.  We were working at an accelerated pace, articulating the vision for the organization at each stage of development, ensuring that every decision and action was purposeful and infused with idea we were making something special happen. It’s amazing to think of what we accomplished in such a chaotic environment while onboarding new staff seemingly every day.

DM: I honestly don't remember my actual first day. At some point in August of 2008, I was officially shifted from contract consultant to full-time employee. I do remember being in Seattle during the federal trial and Clay asked me, "If we move to OKC, what are we going to do with you?" I didn't know how to take it at first, but it was his way of telling me there was a full-time position available if I wanted it. Of course ... I did.

LW: Our Senior Vice President of Guest Relations, Pete Winemiller. He was so sweet/thoughtful/welcoming to help make me feel at home my first day, week, month, year. Day one, he brought me office supplies, bought me breakfast, a smoothie, lunch … I remember wondering where all the people were on the sidewalks. After a few weeks, I learned about the underground walkways and the sky-bridges and that’s how the business people got around downtown during the workweek.

JL: I remember wondering where everyone was. Leaving Seattle, where a lot of people walk through the downtown streets during the summer, to Oklahoma City, where people tend to stay inside … It was quite a change and took some getting used to.

AM: I remember people just sitting at long folding tables at our Leadership Square office. Within a couple of days, they had moved us down to the first floor but put in some temporary cubicles in the middle of the floor. We were just trying to figure out what we were going to have to sell.

KW: When that rush to get ready for the first season was taking place, we were all hands on deck. It was like working for a start-up company. We had the energy and the people and we just pitched in where it was needed. It might not be something you would normally do in your role or your department, but you wanted to help do it. We were in it together.

What do you remember most about the logo unveiling on Sept. 3, 2008?

BB: The atrium at Leadership Square was jam-packed – a line formed outside the “blacked out windows” of the team shop hours before the unveiling – and the buzz and anticipation was beyond our wildest dreams. We couldn’t rehearse the unveiling of the banner, accompanied by the song – Thunderstruck – for fear it would leak to the public. While we were instilling the cultural values of preparation, collaboration, trust and professionalism, we had to risk our first impression for the public with a high-profile activity without the benefit of a real rehearsal.  Our event team did a masterful job pulling it off and set the tone for our award-winning reputation for event production.


DM: The anticipation that built up all day. The windows of the Thunder Shop covered in paper and the long line of people waiting to be among the first to buy Thunder gear! Also, the people lined up everywhere in that LS atrium, including up and down on the escalators.

LW: I wasn’t there because I had just got to town the night before and was moving into my rental house that day. I do remember being in the Target parking lot and making a point to listen to Clay speak about the logo on the radio.

JL: The stresses of setting everything up without anyone seeing the banner. We had a lot of production staff from our lighting and audio partner, Toucan Productions, so we had to work to set the banner reveal, without letting anyone get a peak. I also remember the excitement of the team store, where people lined up to get their Thunder gear. Oklahoma City was full support from day one and it was a great sign for us and what we would be working with in the arena on game nights.

AM: I was very excited to see what it was going to look like. I watched as hundreds of people walked from all over downtown to come into the atrium area of Leadership Square. I was shocked at how many people had come over but it made it so exciting. We of course had seen some of the leaks but people still wanted to be a part of the atmosphere.

KW: I think part of the beauty of the transition from Seattle to Oklahoma City was that everything was positive. People were so excited the team was here. It was just an exciting time!

One week before Opening Night, what were your biggest fears?

BB: Getting everyone their tickets – and ensuring they were labeled correctly; worried about the event presentation and living up to the expectations set in the market.

DM: I don't know that I had any. There was such a feeling in the city of excitement and anticipation, it didn't leave any room for fear. I also knew that we had a wonderful collection of professionals ready to make this thing work.

LW: I didn’t really have any specific fears (or one specifically), that I can recall. It’s been a long time since then, I’m sure I was worried about many things getting done on time!

JL: It’s hard to completely understand if you’re not in the business, but working in a market where there wasn’t a lot of major league sports experience was a bit difficult. Trying to find staff that had the experience needed to produce a show at the level we were used to was difficult. Just understanding the flow of an NBA game’s production and being prepared. Everything from camera operators, to dancers to PA announcers and emcees, etc.

AM: That we were forgetting everything. We had so many fears that things would not run smoothly. Signs would turn on or promotions would fall flat. We hoped fans would be there and we hoped they would cheer as much as we wanted them to. I knew we were probably not up to the standards of some NBA arenas when it came to spaces and technology but from a sponsorship standpoint, our clients didn’t know. I think everyone was just so happy.

Do you recall a specific moment, day or project from that first season you’d like to get a do-over?

BB: It feels like July 2 through the end of the regular season in early April lasted about 15 minutes. There was so much to do -- most of the workflow created from scratch -- that it was hard to appreciate the moment and embrace the significance of it. One experience that lives with me comes from our initial 'select-a-seat' event in mid-September. I recall watching a father standing in line to formalize his purchase of two season tickets. As he was waiting, he was explaining to his young son the significance of what they were doing -- he told a story of "driving to Dallas" to watch an NBA game once a year with his father and now they were buying season tickets for their own hometown team. He went on to say, " ... do your realize what we are about to do?" I wish we captured more of those moments to reflect upon all these years later as they form the emotional foundation of our fan connectivity.

DM: I don't think so. Everything we did was done with thought and professionalism. Were there some things we could have done better with hindsight?  Maybe, but I don't prefer to look at it that way.

LW: The majority of the design/marketing materials the first season looked the same. They were generic with a blue basketball skin background and the logo (large) in the center on everything. It was appropriate for that time in that we didn’t have much.

JL: Our video production – unfortunately, the arena was not set up for the type of video production we were used to and it created a lot of issues. We had to bring in a truck and operate from the loading dock. It wasn’t ideal and it was definitely a glaring weakness during our first season. More prep time would have set us up better.

AM: Knowing what we know now, I am sure we would do everything completely different but I have to say that in the moment, we truly did the best we could. We had a few client meetings that probably could have gone better, but I really don’t know if I would change anything.

What are your favorite memories from that first season? How about 10 seasons?

BB:

  • New Year’s Eve 2008 – 3-29 going into the game yet the building was sold-out, yet the building was sold-out, and the energy from the fans was inspiring. The team won and accelerated the journey we have enjoyed for 10 seasons.  That night holds special meaning for us that were there as it truly serves as a tipping point for our brand resonance and fan engagement.
  • Standing in Thunder Alley near midnight following our first home playoff game vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, I was confronted by a middle-age couple with tears in their eyes. As they walked to the parking garage, they told me a quick story of being life-long “Okies,” never believing they would find themselves in the middle of the street in downtown Oklahoma City, happily sharing the experience with total strangers. They were overwhelmed with pride in their city and the uniting environment of attending a Thunder game.
  • The organic response from the fans to applaud and salute our team at the end of the first playoff series against the Lakers in 2010 – it cemented the love affair between the team and fan base.
  • Running out the clock against San Antonio to clinch the Western Conference Finals in 2012.
  • Fans consistently telling me how much they value our work in the community, encouraging us to stay committed to our values/character and elevating the global perception of Oklahoma – it’s unique to our organization and an honor to have this type of broader responsibility while representing the Thunder.
  • Fan turnout to greet Russell Westbrook on Aug. 4, 2016 – celebrating his commitment to OKC.

DM:

  • Our first community event at the OKC Zoo, players coming out to help raise money for hurricane victims in Texas.
  • Our first Holiday Assist shopping spree at Target -- Nick Collison putting a basketball goal on his truck and driving it to the family's house.
  • Opening Night ’08. An overwhelming feeling of pride in OKC getting to that point. 
  • The long ovation our fans gave the team following ’10 Playoffs.
  • Winning the Western Conference and going to the NBA Finals in ’12.
  • Representing the Thunder in 2013 in NYC to accept the Sports Business Journal’s Sports Team of the Year. Clay and the rest of the VPs were scheduled to attend, but they remained home to deal with tornado aftermath. I went because my daughter Danielle was graduating from NYU the next day at Yankee Stadium. In accepting the award, I talked about how proud we are of what our logo stands for and nothing said it better than what we were doing to assist tornado victims.
  • The wonderful funny and poignant moments of players in the community. Steven and Enes playing Bingo with seniors, Russell in a wheelchair visiting kids injured in the tornado, Daequan Cook staying well past the end of allotted time at Target to keep entertaining the kids. 

LW: My favorite memories from the first season would be just going to the games and the intrigue and excitement for Opening Night. It was new to be in another city watching our new NBA team. I’d only been to NBA games in Seattle and Portland up to that point – so it was very interesting to see the fans and the building and how different it was here regarding the city, landscape, people and southern accents.

JL: Just getting to meet people who were excited about the team. And instantly feeling part of the community. It definitely made everything easier. There’s nothing easy about starting from scratch to put together an NBA game experience with such a short turnaround, but the community and their appreciation for us and our staff made it a lot easier.

AM: I remember the first time we got our STAR report back from the NBA and we were ranked ninth. I knew in Seattle they were pretty low to the bottom so we were so proud of ourselves. We knew we had done so much in so little time. Since only one deal came from Seattle, we knew we had sold all those new deals.

I will never forget the game vs. the Lakers when Pau Gasol hit that shot that ended our season. It was so devastating, but what happened with the crowd right after that moment gave me chills. We have always known we had great fans and that they are more like a college crowd than most NBA fans, but this moment was just unbelievable. The length of the standing ovation and how those players reacted was all the difference. I think all of us and the players were stunned.

What does the phrase, ‘Thunder Cares’ mean to you?

BB: It serves as a visual reminder of the role we have to provide meaningful leadership and action in our community. I am often humbled by feedback from people in the community who go beyond saying “thank you” when we host an event or make a contribution to a cause – they recognize our work as valued, important, inspiring and impactful. It’s a great responsibility we have and it fuels our passion for meaningful engagement and providing a positive impact toward others.

DM: It means we are more than a basketball team. We are engrained in this community and have an obligation to give back to show our thanks for the wonderful support we receive.

LW: Being involved in Thunder Cares is my favorite part of my job! I had not had much (if any) experience working on large-scale projects for our team’s community efforts/foundation in the past. The dedication and commitment the OKC Thunder give to support the city, community and state is incredible and much deeper and more hands-on than my experience was in the Northwest. I’ve gotten to be involved in so many meaningful projects over the years -- Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma, The City Rescue Mission, Justice Alma Seeworth Academy, Salvation Army, Integris-Baptist Pediatric ICU, Positive Tomorrows, Westwood Elementary, Webster Middle School, Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, and many court refurbishment projects around the city and state. My work renovating interior and exterior spaces has made a difference in the lives of others and often for those less fortunate, homeless and hungry. It’s incredibly fulfilling and heartwarming to see the smiles we’ve brought to faces, young and old over the years. Any difference large or small that we’ve made in our community is a great source of pride for the organization and myself, personally.

JL: That we aren’t just an NBA team, that we are actually a big part of the community in OKC and across the state. The team and community join in a reciprocal relationship.

AM: So much. Of course I think of all the efforts we have had in the community like camps, fit clinics, courts, shopping sprees, etc. But truly it means more than that. We can refurbish a court or take a family in need grocery shopping, but Thunder Cares is more than these one-off events or experiences. We have cared about our community in these types of efforts but we also care about what we can do to make this a better place.


What are you most proud of during these first 10 seasons?

BB: We accepted the challenge to perform at a high level – high standards of execution and guest experiences – regardless of market size or external bias. We steadfastly believe in our vision for a valued and sustainable business model and we have never compromised our integrity or values along the way.  We have built a global brand that is well respected and is expected to provide leadership in our work. The key performance metrics in our business – season ticket sales, sponsorship revenue, television ratings, merchandise sales, social media followers, etc. consistently rank among the top tier of the NBA – often outperforming much broader markets. This type of success fuels our confidence and is incredibly rewarding.

DM: What we have built beyond the basketball floor. A reputation for being first-class, professional, responsive and caring.

LW: I’m most proud of what I mentioned above in the previous question, involving our Thunder Cares initiative, but I’m also positively gratified to be a part of the Thunder organization and how we’ve helped shape the city over the last 10 years. Being involved in the brand, personality and uniqueness of our team from the early days has been quite an experience and one that could never be replicated. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with very talented designers/colleagues/vendors/community leaders over the years -- past and present. I’ve been honored to mentor several talented designers over the years and take pride in influencing their design principles, yet I continue to learn how to improve and polish my own skills and use of new technologies. My greatest satisfaction, the tight-knit relationships I’ve revered from both Seattle and Oklahoma City, and how they will have a lifelong impact on me.

JL: For being recognized as having one of the best game experiences for our fans. It could not happen without their investment and connection with the Thunder.

AM: The success we have had. In so many aspects of this business, we have done some amazing things but of course I am most proud of what we have done in sponsorships. I truly feel like I was part of something big and have helped so much with this success. Not to be cheesy, but I couldn’t feel more proud of what we have accomplished. When I look at the success of the team as a whole, I know that a huge part of that is done through us but I also know that it takes every single one of us to make this work.

KW: “I love us!” is something I say about our office and our organization a lot. We are a unique bunch I’ve worked for a lot of companies out in the world and this is the only one where I can say that we all really get along. We figure out how to make things work by sharing a culture of respect and collaboration. We aren’t just co-workers – a pretty dry term – we are family members with deeper ties because we are sharing a lot of our lives together.

Reveal your favorite story from that first season that couldn’t be told … til now?

BB: I was the first person in Oklahoma City a week before the official announcement in order to have contingency plans in place to launch business operations on a moment’s notice.

DM: The basketball that "fell" out of the moving van for the media event was staged for the photo op.

JL: The Thunder Girls had one particular outfit that they used from time to time during the first season. It was a white short and matching top with blue trim, but they somehow reminded one of our owners of something his mom used to wear.  We were told never to use them again. Needless to say, they were retired immediately.

AM: The late hours we spent in the beginning trying to get everything going … well, it was done with a lot of beer, too. We had many drinks after official office hours while trying to figure it all out but it only helped with building our staff and developing the camaraderie. We were thrown into the fire, but we at least made it a ton of fun. All while working 80 hours a week!

KW: I recall the first Saturday that several of us were in the office at Leadership Square. We didn’t know about noon siren testing. Sky was blue, siren was sounding and lots of Seattle folks’ heads were popping out of offices. We looked at one another, checked the blue sky and decided we weren’t going to die and got back to work.